Perspectives from Senior Level Advisors on Advancing Equity & Justice in International Education

Posted: Tuesday, May 4, 2021
By: Subgroup of 2020-2021 Education Abroad: Student Support & Advising Task Force


For this article, we asked senior-level practitioners, those with 10 or more years of experience within education abroad, to share insights for newer professionals on how they can build a career that advances equity and justice for all students interested in global learning. Their responses are categorized into three areas: professional development tips and opportunities, lessons in leadership from their time in the field, and their hopes for the future of global education.   

Professional Development Tips & Opportunities

When asked about specific experiences or student interactions that have furthered senior administrators' understanding of equity and justice, respondents shared many student scenarios that have stayed with them throughout their professional careers. For example, when advising students from different identities, learning their personal stories, and hearing the challenges and fears they have about living and learning abroad, Gregory Spear, Assistant Director of Global Living and Learning Programs at Georgetown University, shared, “[I] have realized that there are many points in the study abroad pipeline at which students with minoritized or marginalized identities might feel compelled to opt out without the proper support structures.” One of the strategies advisors have found to be helpful in building a robust support structure is to collaborate early and often with partner offices on campus to better understand the needs of different student groups. It is also important to approach these conversations as a dialogue, not simply as a forum for marketing and/or outreach. 

We also asked respondents if there were specific professional development opportunities they would recommend for new practitioners. Lauren Ruszczyk, who works at the University of Maryland College Park as the Senior Associate Director for Education Abroad, provided this insight:

“It's important to shift the framing of professional development so that it refers to a continuous cycle of learning, application, and reflection. When it comes to equity and justice, we must adopt an anti-racist perspective and level of accountability that ensures we are working towards changing structures and systems and not just performative measures that don't advance real change. In particular, leaders [must] work with staff to help them contextualize their learning and professional development as it relates to advancing the stated mission of the organization, as well as the growth of the individual as a professional in our field.”

Many respondents also suggested that new professionals join diversity committees on campus to represent the international education perspective. New professionals can also pursue opportunities to serve as reviewers for study abroad scholarships like Gilman, Fund for Education Abroad, Boren, etc. to learn more about the formal structures for expanding access to opportunities abroad. Learning about and implementing inclusive program design,  as well as participating in professional exchanges with colleagues from institutions that serve different student populations were also recommended. Respondents also shared the following resources that helped shape and expand their view of international education within the larger landscape of equity, diversity, and inclusion:


Lessons in Leadership

In terms of leadership, advocacy and managing up, senior education abroad practitioners stressed the importance of utilizing data, focusing on access, and defining learning outcomes. A number of respondents cited that demonstrating the impact of education abroad on graduation and retention rates, especially for students of color, has helped to move the needle and advance the conversation. And moreover, in order to equitably offer students these global experiences, there is a real need for cross-campus collaboration to identify and increase funding sources for those students who may otherwise not be able to participate. Daniel F. Diaz, Director of Global and Off-Campus Initiatives & International Student Advisor at Guilford College, suggested looking at the link between learning outcomes and student success: 

“[We need to] push for building a stronger understanding of learning outcomes and goals, and show how that translates to retention, graduation rates, and alumni advancement. Overall, [it’s important that we] keep the conversation active that global education is an essential mechanism for building equity and justice both locally, regionally, and internationally.”

A number of survey respondents shared that their institutions have been hiring new, senior DEI administrators in recent months, such as assistant vice presidents and associate provosts for DEI. However, the reality is that education abroad offices can easily be left out of the conversation, and are not always directly integrated into these initiatives. Some respondents cited this as a lost opportunity, since there is fertile ground for leveraging the intersection of DEI and intercultural frameworks. Others opted for charting their own path as an office. “[Advocating for racial justice and equity] is a pretty recent phenomena at my current institution,” one administrator shared. “Our office has been pushing out in front, because we couldn’t wait for our [senior leadership] to figure it out for us.” 

Diversifying professional and student staff

Another area where respondents shared insights was around diversifying their student support staff. A common theme that emerged was the need for examining job descriptions and recruitment methods, especially since most education abroad offices remain largely made up of white staff. “Many jobs in our field require international experience, when we already know that the majority of folks participating in study abroad do not hold marginalized identities,” shared Ruszczyk at the University of Maryland. Others spoke to the reality that support staff who identify as BIPOC can often end up doing invisible work and carrying an additional burden due to the relationships they support and needs they serve. 

In most cases, the staff doesn’t reflect the student population. At Elon University, under the leadership of Allegra Laing, Associate Director for Global Diversity and Inclusion, they have constructed a pipeline for students from marginalized identities to attend the Global Student Leadership Summit, the student component of the Global Inclusion conference, and then become members of the office’s student peer advising staff. However, this isn’t possible without accountability and consistent action. “It takes resources and a certain amount of commitment to make sure we are getting our job postings to all students,” shared Rhonda Waller, Executive Director of Global Education at Elon.

The intersection of global education and social responsibility

Respondents also weighed in on how practitioners can push students to consider gaining new perspectives on social responsibility as a key component of their study abroad experience. Many cited the importance of faculty and senior leadership in driving this conversation, especially in terms of curriculum, program development, and learning outcomes. Although, others shared that education abroad advisors can still embrace this philosophy despite not having full institutional support. Some examples shared were encouraging students to get involved in their host community, as well as thoughtfully developing pre-departure, on-site, and re-entry content that helps students explore these concepts. “We've evolved from promoting study abroad [not only] as a way to go to a specific country, but rather as a way to achieve academic and career goals. I think we have work to do to expand that narrative to promote study abroad as a way to focus on social responsibility,” suggested Dan Hart, Associate Director for Health, Safety, and Security at Arizona State University.

Hopes for the Future of Global Education

Among senior level advisors working in the field of international education, there is hope that more BIPOC and queer students will participate on global education programs and that more staff and faculty will actively participate in the work of global education offices at colleges and universities. However, simple representation is not enough, and there was an imperative expressed in the responses to work diligently and expeditiously on addressing inequities and exclusionary practices. “I hope that tourism becomes more about learning and connection than sightseeing and watching,” shared Diaz at Guilford College. “I hope that we become more curious and open about each other's differences, rather than fearful and wary.” Many respondents cited the need for institutional resources and support to achieve more equity, access, and justice for students who hold marginalized identities, as well as internationalization efforts to happen across a broad range of campus offices and become institutional priorities. “Intercultural and multicultural educational efforts should be interspersed and integrated throughout our organizations. Institutional support should be in place to promote access for all students in global learning (at home and abroad),” suggested Marisa Atencio, Assistant Dean and Director of Global Education at Oglethorpe University.

The pros and cons of virtual programming

During the past year, virtual programming has burgeoned and made space for innovation and creativity in the delivery of global education. As for these global education opportunities, many of the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Atencio said, “I believe meeting people from around the world and having open conversations virtually will heighten confidence and increase interest in intercultural exchange. Pre-departure preparations can be improved immensely by infusing virtual collaborations and interactions that will help both the voyager and the host.” Many respondents acknowledged that the ability to offer experiences that introduce students to a global network of people and participate in intercultural dialogue and exchange presents an important opportunity for increased equity and inclusion.  “I think this [virtual engagement] is a critical way to provide learning and content with a global focus to those who aren't interested or are unable to travel,” suggested Hart at Arizona State University.

However, several respondents also highlighted that virtual programming can be a double-edged sword. It can increase inequities and become isolating and exclusionary for students from low-income or other marginalized backgrounds. Senior level advisors spoke of the importance of designing virtual global education programs intentionally and strategically, in order to avoid the pitfalls of increased iniquities and inequalities. “To make the most of the virtual context and how vast and accessible virtual can be for students, we need to create spaces that really allow for immersion and connection through the virtual platform,” commented Holly Wheeler, Assistant Director and Advisor, Asia at NAU Education Abroad. 

An increased focus on health & safety

Many practitioners agreed that colleges and universities will need to offer more robust health and safety resources to students planning to go abroad.  

“The pandemic has forced everyone to review and rethink safety practices and has revealed gaps. Before the pandemic, many of us were trained and had experienced emergency scenarios involving one or two students at a time. The pandemic created a situation where we had to think about larger numbers of students at risk at the same time. It encouraged closer collaboration with the physicians and staff at our student health clinic, as well as all of those who serve on our emergency advisory committee, and it has necessitated better guidance to both students and faculty pre-departure,”said Farrah Bernardino, Director for International Initiatives at Georgia State University. 

This increased attention to health and safety on global education programs also comes with an increased institutional aversion to risk at many institutions of higher education. This amplified risk aversion may include more robust and integrated systems for mitigating risk, putting more insurance measures into place, and offering innovative ways for students to access healthcare options. 

“I do feel that there will be more telehealth opportunities for our students in the future, as that has shown to work well, at least in the U.S. I think that by having information with the DOS Travel Advisories, CDC and our partners, we will know what types of precautions to help our students with. It's also shown the importance of having regular contact with students if they are abroad with a faculty leader, whether that contact is by the overseas partner/provider or from our office,” remarked Ginny Casper, Assistant Director of International Programs at Union College. 

Many advisors also cited the necessity to prioritize mental and emotional health resources for students, in addition to the physical health and safety standards that already exist. According to Ben Levy, Director of International Education/SIO at Ramapo College of New Jersey, the pandemic has further highlighted the importance in “supporting the holistic well-being of students, especially those already marginalized, and best approached through relational and contextually relevant approaches."

More inclusive curriculum design for education abroad

Respondents had much to say about curriculum for education abroad programming as it relates to racial justice. Gareth McFeely, Executive Director of Study Abroad at Boston University, implored a student-centered lens when stressing that “many of the students most deeply and sincerely committed to questions of social and racial justice are actively concerned to see the development of (ethical) programming in locations that are often ignored or marginalized, and those concerns deserve to be taken very seriously.” Several respondents spoke of the necessity to infuse a racial justice lens into all programs abroad, regardless of their locations or their focus, since ongoing histories of racism and colonialism can be discussed anywhere on the planet. Karen Williams, Education Abroad Advisor at Drake University summed this sentiment up by saying:

“I think who the faculty/staff leader(s) are, how they approach the topic, the content they choose to share, and who they meet within the local communities all have an important influence on how students learn about racial justice. I think the ‘where’ piece is less important and is dependent on the expertise of the program leader(s), but students should understand the history of relationships between places (colonialism/imperialism, globalization, etc.).  I also think students should have some understanding of the imagined importance of place(s) (i.e., that no place is better than another, even though historical stories and the media may portray that).” 

There was also a call for more reciprocity in global education, for example, looking into the directionality of travel, which traditionally happens from the Global North to the Global South. “If we insist on writing the curriculum without collaborating with others truly (academic imperialism) then nothing is going to change,” commented Waller at Elon University. Others agreed. Spear at Georgetown University had this to say: “I think curriculum development that roots global learning and education abroad programming in pressing, human-centered, 21st century challenges -- wherever and whatever those might be -- have value, and that the ethics have more to do with how we as educators disrupt and challenge notions of positionality and power and set the stage for learning that seeks just and sustainable communities.”


It is an important moment to reflect and take action to ensure that equity and justice are at the forefront of international education program design and delivery. The reflections and responses gathered in this article, represent the collective work of  a group of over twenty senior level advisors in the field of international education. There are a wealth of tips, lessons, and hopeful messages for newer professionals to build a career that advances equity and justice for all students. As one respondent highlighted, learning about and practicing anti-racism and utilizing an equity lens for global education program design is an on-going process of learning, application, and reflection. The work of creating more diverse and inclusive student support frameworks on abroad programs will be a challenging and long process, yet there is much reason for hope as the world slowly transitions into a post-pandemic reality. 

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